California nonprofit brings wildfire recovery experience to Santiam Canyon

Wildfire in 2020 left damage all throughout the Santiam Canyon east of Salem. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Over the next few years, a Northern California-based nonprofit will work to get local officials and organizations connected with grant funds to aid survivors of the 2020 Santiam Canyon wildfires.

Jennifer Gray Thompson, CEO of After the Fire, spent Tuesday morning touring the canyon and meeting with community leaders in Detroit, Mill City and Stayton about how they’ve been working toward recovery.

“What we do is we look for gaps where we can be of service,” Thompson said.

The group helps communities across the west recover from and plan for wildfires, which she said have become a near constant occurrence over the past three years, including in Sonoma County, California where Thompson hails from.

“We are wildfire survivors, and we have four years in our own experience of non-stop wildfire response and recovery,” she said. Their goal is to build a wildfire resilience network across multiple states where they can drop into affected communities and help them recover.

Thompson said Jim White, executive director of the Nonprofit Association of Oregon, and Lawrence Leahy, philanthropic advisor for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, asked After the Fire to visit the canyon after learning about the group’s ongoing work in southern Oregon that started after the Almeda fire in fall 2020.

She said it’s been easier for the nonprofit to meet with county and state officials in Oregon than anywhere else with city and county officials welcoming collaboration.

“There is so much communication between the local leaders (and) boots on the ground,” she said. “It has been especially good at the work of collaborative leadership. That is rare in disaster.”

Thompson said the community leaders she met with asked After the Fire to take five actions to help wildfire survivors recover, but she declined to disclose the specific requests. “I’m not going to share them publicly because I want to act on them,” she said.

The nonprofit doesn’t provide assistance to residents individually, but will help local organizations in the canyon get grants and FEMA funding for individual assistance to work on their long-term financial stability.

“It doesn’t mean that we’re going to give them big grants. It means that we’re going to connect them as opportunities for grants because really, that should be funded publicly into perpetuity, but at least for another three years because that’s the only way to do it,” she said. “We help organizations with their own capacity to serve locally.”

Thompson said she went to the canyon to understand what local leaders are doing that is innovative, what they think isn’t working and any bottlenecks After the Fire can help with. She said the canyon needs stable funding to continue recovery for another three years.

“That support is going to have to come from the public sector and philanthropy,” she said. “They’ve done a great job so far, but they do need some stability and not having to be worried about who they can employ a year from now to continue to work on this effort, or even six months from now.”

She said residents in the canyon would benefit from having an ombudsman from FEMA representing them, particularly for individual assistance, for case managers at Santiam Hospital’s Service Integration Team to contact.

Thompson said she was impressed by the work of the team, which helps connect canyon residents affected by wildfires with help for food, childcare, housing and other needs.

She met Tuesday at the hospital with leaders of the Santiam Canyon Long Term Recovery Group, United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley, Knights of Columbus and Stayton Area Rotary, as well as Mill City Mayor Tom Kirsch and Todd Miller, superintendent of the Santiam Canyon School District.

Since the wildfires, Miller said at the meeting that the district has lost 15% of its students. Meanwhile, he said the district has had to operate without needed legislative funding they were promised that has yet to be delivered.

“We were told last spring when I set the budget for this school year, ‘Don’t worry, legislators are going to come through for you. The stability bill is already drafted, no brainer, done deal, deal, support from everybody,’” he said. “We’re not getting that money right now.”

Miller said he has overspent $700,000 this year, and he’ll have to cut another $700,000 from the budget next year if they don’t get it to avoid more debt. “You’re talking about $1.4 million that’s going to devastate my schools next year if you don’t do this, and you’re putting on a promise that you’ve already backed off twice,” he said.

Thompson said After the Fire will stay involved in the canyon’s recovery as long as local officials need their help. “We do ask just one thing,” she said, “which is that they also help other wildfire survivors with their lessons learned.”

At some point, she said she will ask them to board a plane with After the Fire staff and visit communities “with a lot of the same characteristics” to share their own experience with recovery.

She plans on returning to the canyon in six months to meet with local officials about what more they can do help. “This is deeply human work, and you cannot do all this virtually. You have to build relationships,” she said.

This story was updated following clarification from After the Fire that they will connect local officials and organizations with grant funds.

 Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.